Friday, November 28, 2014

TNG Flashback: The First Duty

Writing on a television series is a very collaborative process. Though ultimately just one or two people get credit for an episode's script (usually), an entire staff often contributes to the story crafting process. And when arguments develop within the group, it's the show runner that ultimately decides what will end up on the screen. This sort of clash happened behind the scenes of Star Trek: The Next Generation's "The First Duty."

Wesley Crusher has been involved in an accident at Starfleet Academy. His five-man flight team, Nova Squadron, has lost someone during a demonstration around the moons of Saturn, and now an inquiry has been opened into the cause of the accident. But when Wesley's friends and family aboard the Enterprise offer their help -- only to be pushed away -- it begins to seem that the young cadet is lying and concealing the facts of what really happened.

Making this episode was a series of fights behind the scenes, the first being whether to do it at all. Longtime Trek fans within the writing staff were eager to visit Starfleet Academy, a place talked of since the earliest episodes of the original series. But producer Rick Berman objected. Star Trek was about going into space, he said, not going back to Earth. He only relented when show runner Michael Piller convinced him that this episode could tell young people to "do the right thing" in regards to drug use or criminal activity. Even then, Berman had them scale back the intended severity of Wesley's crime, which had been meant to be much darker (and with a more obvious cover-up).

With the story approved, the scriptwriting was taken up by Ronald Moore, the man behind some of The Next Generation's more morally ambiguous hours. He championed new Trek intern (and former college friend) Naren Shankar to co-write with him, and the two of them concocted the ethical dilemma at the heart of the episode: Nova Squadron has attempted something illegal, risking their careers and getting their friend Joshua Albert killed. Wesley faced a choice. He could either stand with his friends and conceal the truth, or he could embrace a more idolized integrity and confess.

Moore and Shankar, the college friends, knew they ending they wanted: a band of brothers who put each other first, with Wesley keeping quiet for the sake of those closest to him. Michael Piller, an older family man who knew what he'd want his own children to do, firmly disagreed: this group had committed a crime, and Wesley needed to come clean and face the music. Personally, I think I side with Piller on this one. Were this, say, Ronald Moore's dark reboot of Battlestar Galactica (or possibly even Deep Space Nine), the situation would be more grey. But in the squeaky clean world of The Next Generation, the message that "the first duty" is to the truth feels like the appropriate one.

Even after Piller put his foot down and demanded his ending, Moore and Shankar tried to shade things the way they envisioned. Not wanting Wesley to rat out his friends, they had him keep quiet until finally the squadron leader, Nicholas Locarno, cracked and told the truth (taking the heat for the whole thing). This pleased Piller no better, who felt that just made Locarno -- a mere guest character -- the hero of the piece.

So finally, in a marathon overnight writing session, Moore and Shankar gave Piller what he wanted. They restructured the entire story to support the desired ending. They added scenes to stir more guilt in Wesley, such as the late Joshua Albert's father apologizing for his own dead son. They changed the threatened punishment; where the Squadron was originally to have been expelled (so that keeping silent would have required conviction), now the penalty was a slap on the wrist (so Wesley coming forward when he would have gotten away with it was the more courageous choice). Moore and Shankar restructured the story well, but to this day, on the commentary recorded for the Blu-ray release, they still defend their original ending.

Interestingly, if they'd gotten their way, the episode might not have had quite as long a life afterward. A few years after "The First Duty" aired, word reached the Star Trek writers that the episode was actually being screen for cadets in training at the United States Air Force Academy, as an affirmation of their adherence to morality and truth, and an embodiment of their credo: "I will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do." Needless to say, a message of "bros first, screw the brass" probably wouldn't have resonated with them the Air Force.

Still, Ronald Moore and Naren Shankar do acknowledge pride in the finished episode. And deservedly so, in many ways. Continuing on the trend set by "The Game," Wesley Crusher episodes made after Wil Wheaton left the show full time were better than any episodes written while he was a regular. "The Game" rounded Wesley out by giving him a sense of fun and a love interest. "The First Duty" rounds him out by making him flawed. Until now, he seemed too perfect to be real (and this is what so many Trek fans found off-putting, I think). Here, we learned that he too can screw up.

Two elements were key in making it okay for perfect Wesley to be brought low. One is knowing that Picard,in his past, failed too. According to Michael Piller, it was a late addition to the script to hint at Picard's Academy indiscretion, and groundskeeper Boothby's role in helping him get clear of it. Tantalizingly (and wisely), the episode doesn't reveal exactly what this mistake was. Still, the parallels with Wesley's current situation are clear. And that redeems the error. As Piller succinctly put it in a later interview: "If you make a mistake when you're young and it's found out, you have to pay a price for it. It doesn't mean your life is ruined. It means you can still become Jean-Luc Picard."

The other key piece in paving the way for Wesley's mistake was the character of Nicholas Locarno. The leader of Nova Squadron had to be a charismatic personality with a powerful swagger, the sort of person you can believe others would follow even into foolishness. A Captain Kirk, in short. I'm not entirely sure Locarno gets there on the page (he comes off a bit too Machiavellian in some scenes), but much of the gap is made up in the casting of Robert Duncan McNeill.

McNeill clearly charmed the producers as much as the audience, as they cast him a few years later in Star Trek: Voyager. In fact, rumor has it that his Voyager character was originally meant to be Locarno... but that would have meant paying royalties to Ronald Moore and Naren Shankar for creating the character, for the entire run of the show. So instead, the Voyager creators kept the idea of a skilled pilot pulled straight from jail, cast the same actor, and set sail for the Delta Quadrant. (McNeill, for his part, said that he looked differently at the two characters. He saw Locarno as a nice guy at the surface who was bad deep down, while Paris was a good guy deep down who only seems irredeemable when we meet him.)

Robert Duncan McNeill may be the guest star most Trekkers will recognize from this episode, but the real big "get" here was Ray Walston as Boothby. His starring role in the 1960s' My Favorite Martian was only a small part of a decades-long career spanning hundreds of roles. He even returned as Boothby in two episodes of Star Trek: Voyager. (Odd for a show about a ship stranded far from Earth, though the "Boothby"s of those two episodes were facsimiles.) Another notable guest star is Richard Fancy. Here he plays the Vulcan Satelk, though he's probably best known from Seinfeld as Elaine's boss, Mr. Lippman.

The episode is so crowded with guest stars and so focused on Wesley that most of the regulars don't get to do much. Still, there are a few good moments for Beverly Crusher and Captain Picard. Beverly's oddly detached reaction to learning about Wesley's accident makes sense when you think about her past loss of her husband Jack -- it's a sort of instinctual pulling away from dealing with the news. Later, her willingness to doubt satellite footage over Wesley's testimony shows her fierce devotion to her son. And the fact that Picard comes with her to all the hearings is a very subtle nod to the romantic thread that lingers between them.

As for Picard, the further tales of his wild youth (first mentioned in "Samaritan Snare" and later to be depicted in "Tapestry") continue to provide an intriguing contrast to the man we know today. The final scene of the episode is also strong, where Picard pushes Wesley to seize a second chance just as he himself once did.

But the towering scene of the episode, the one that probably makes the whole story worth telling, is the scene where Picard confronts Wesley, having guessed the truth of the accident. The dressing down is severe and uncomfortable. Patrick Stewart gives a remarkable performance. If you could have the chance to live in Star Trek's future, with the price being that you'd have to bear Picard's disappointment coming at you full like in this scene, I think most people would stay put in the present. The scene is also well written (with a poignant callback to "Encounter at Farpoint") and well directed (with a striking close-up on Picard).

Other observations:
  • The flag at Starfleet Academy is shown flying at half mast, a nice detail. Another great detail was the Academy's Latin motto: "Ex astra, scientia" (or, "from the stars, knowledge"). This paraphrased the mission patch of Apollo 13: "Ex luna, scientia."
  • The exterior scenes at the Academy were filmed at the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant, the same place where the alien planet from "Justice" was shot.
  • In an odd moment that slipped through the production process, the set for the Academy "dorm room" used a regular door with hinges and a handle. Rick Berman reportedly flipped out when he saw the footage, and had them put in a rather goofy electronic sound effect to make the door seem more futuristic. (As Ronald Moore jokes in the Blu-ray commentary, "Subspace door handle engaged.")
  • In the same commentary, Moore also reveals that in his earliest vision of the story, he wanted to go all the way and have Wesley be expelled from Starfleet Academy. He argued that Starfleet didn't seem like the best fit for Wesley (an argument he would ultimately win in season seven, it seems). Free Wesley to go start his new life, Moore argued, which he now says could well have been from his own autobiography.
  • Speaking of the Blu-ray, this was another episode where some original film footage went missing. Unlike the last time this happened, the 37 seconds of upconverted SD images are very noticeable, looking like a soap opera style bit of "airbrushing" with soft light.
  • The Blu-ray also includes a couple of deleted scenes. There's a largely unnecessary scene where Beverly Crusher consoles the father of the dead cadet. But there's also a nice, short scene where she confides to Picard that she knows Wesley lied to her. It's nice to see that she isn't completely naive about what's happening here.
  • References, both real and fictional, abound in this episode. There are the real names of many of Saturn's moons. The bell used at the hearing is a callback to legal proceedings in multiple classic Star Trek episodes. And the Yeager Loop is named for Chuck Yeager, the pilot who first broke the sound barrier.
"Good for a Wesley episode" might be damning this installment with faint praise. Still, it pretty well sums things up. I give "The First Duty" a B.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Concord Great

I recently had the chance to try out a board game released last year, Concordia. From designer Mac Gerdts, it's a game of colonization and trade set in the Roman Empire.

Each player is given an identical hand of several cards representing the actions available. On your turn, you play one card to move your colonists around the board, establish trade routes, generate resources in a single region of the board, and more. In a mechanic I have seen used in a handful of games, one card in the deck returns your discard pile to your hand; you are only allowed to take actions still in hand until you refresh your options.

In a twist on this mechanic that I haven't really seen before, one of the action cards is actually used to recruit additional action cards. From a deck of supplemental actions, seven new options are dealt out face up and can be purchased for a variety of costs. These actions go straight into your hand when you buy them, and become a permanent part of your arsenal -- they're another thing you can do once before refreshing your discard pile.

As players acquire different cards, their strategies diverge in interesting ways. That's in part because these cards are also what generates the victory condition. Each cards belongs to one of about a half dozen categories, and each category generates end game points by a different means: points according to money on hand, for diversity of trade routes across the board, for diversity of good types generated, and so on.

The overall result of the system is a classic Euro game scenario where there are many paths to victory... though a player is wise not to pursue all of them equally. And yet, because the starting hand of cards actually represents every category of end game points, I found you do need to diversify a bit more than the average "focus on one thing" path to victory you'll often find in a Euro game. Indeed, when I played, I began to suspect I had not diversified enough -- despite my powerful on-board position. Sure enough, when the points were tallied, I'd come in second. But it was very fun to see a game fall in a different place on a well traveled Euro game continuum.

If I had one complaint about the game, it would be that all points are generated at endgame. There's no scoring along the way. Thus, it can be rather difficult to tell how you're doing until it's too late to do anything about it. On the other hand, this rather neatly deals with the problem of players ganging up on the leader, thus making it desirable to sneak along in second place until near the end of the game.

Whether or not that was actually a flaw, I still had a very positive reaction to the game. I'm looking forward to playing it again and seeing other ways it can unfold. If my later experiences are as fun as the first couple, I'd give the game an A-. It would be a great addition to any Euro game fan's collection.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

TNG Flashback: Cause and Effect

"Cause and Effect" represented a bit of a departure for Star Trek: The Next Generation. There's no moral allegory presented. No character is put at the center of any emotional drama. It's just a straightforward sci-fi adventure.

The Enterprise collides with another starship and is destroyed! ... only to appear again intact, en route to a little explored region of space known as the Typhon Expanse. Throughout the ship, people experience subtle sensations of deja vu. But before they can get to the bottom of what's happening, another starship appears out of nowhere and collides with them, destroying the Enterprise! ... When the Enterprise again begins its journey into the Typhon Expanse, the crew begins to sense they have become trapped in a repeating loop of time. But with sharp memories of their experiences wiped out every time the loop resets, how will they learn what they need to do to escape?

Staff writer Brannon Braga created this episode as a personal challenge: he wanted to tell a time travel story, but without falling into standard time travel cliches. Over a year before the movie Groundhog Day was released, he hit upon the idea of repeating the same day over and over again, with our heroes unknowingly trapped inside.

Without doubt, it makes for one of the most spectacular teasers in seven seasons of The Next Generation, if not all of Star Trek. Watching the Enterprise be destroyed in the first 60 seconds certainly makes you sit up, take notice, and ask "what the hell is going on?!" The visual effects team gave appropriate weight to this moment by not superimposing an explosion over a model shot as they normally would; instead, they built a special model of the Enterprise specifically to be destroyed for this episode.

But ending nearly every act with the destruction of the Enterprise is only part of the clever writing in this episode. It makes the regular poker game, often used as a time-filling device, a key part of the plot. It introduces several "touchstone" moments that repeat in each loop, while offering subtle variations each time through. (My favorite is the almost Hitchcockian suspense that develops when Crusher tries to avoid breaking her wine glass, only to end up doing it anyway despite her precautions.)

Actually, though I noted earlier than no one episode is really the focus of this episode, Beverly Crusher comes close. She's in almost every scene (and in the few where she doesn't appear, her voice still comes through on the comm). Interestingly, she was also the focus of another effective episode with a big sci-fi premise, "Remember Me" -- though that episode did have a significant and personal character element to it too. Perhaps there's an inherently good match in putting the doctor character at the center of the most high concept stories?

As fun as this idea is, and as generally well written as it is, the episode still wouldn't have worked without very strong directing. In the director's chair this time: actor Jonathan Frakes, helming his fourth episode. There were several new challenges for him here. His three previous outings were all quite character-driven. His own character, Riker, appeared on screen here significantly more than he had in those other episodes. And he'd been given a very specific mandate from producer Rick Berman.

Following the disaster that was "Shades of Gray," no one wanted to do another "clip episode" of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Rick Berman was reportedly very concerned that this episode might be misinterpreted as one, and told Frakes that he should not reuse any footage in any of the repetitions. (Berman wasn't entirely off base in this concern. When the episode originally aired, several local TV stations apparently received phone calls from fans complaining that they were repeating the same section of the episode after the commercial break.)

Jonathan Frakes took Berman's directive and ran with it in wonderfully creative ways. He uses a far broader array of camera setups than you see in the average episode, and reserves different techniques for different iterations through the time loop. The second full loop is marked by prominent close-ups, particularly in the poker scene. The third is marked by zoom-ins on characters as they deliver dialogue. The final loop contains several "one-ers," long single takes without any cuts. (It also uses a unique overhead view of the conference room, and a conspicuously handheld camera as they came onto the bridge after that conference.) These inventive camera change-ups work subconsciously to maintain interest despite the repeating plot.

There are a few more fun developments in the final minutes of the episode, when the Enterprise finally escapes the loop. First, we see the one and only appearance of the main shuttle bay in the entire series; a special model with a "roll-top desk" style door was created for the sequence, complete with shuttles visible inside.

We also get a memorable appearance by Kelsey Grammer as Captain Morgan Bateson. The TV series Cheers filmed on the Paramount lot, next door to Star Trek. This proximity had already led to Trekker Bebe Neuwirth appearing in an episode. Here, Grammer came over for a day to film the episode's final scene. Originally, the writers also wanted his co-star Kirstie Alley to appear at his side as her Star Trek II character of Saavik, but scheduling conflicts prevented the completion of the Cheers trifecta.

The set of Bateson's ship, the Bozeman, was a reuse of the bridge from the recently completed Star Trek VI, as were all the uniforms worn by the actors "from the past." This was a necessary budget shortcut to compensate for all that model work on the exploding Enterprise and its shuttlebay. This was also not part of the writers' original plan. Original series fan Ronald Moore had desperately wanted to make the Bozeman a Constitution-class ship like the original Enterprise, recreating the ship, its bridge, and its crews' uniforms in the style of the original show. (He would get to fulfill that wish in part next season, when James Doohan appeared as Scotty in the episode "Relics.")

Though the episode is a lot of fun and well made, it does still fall a bit short in a few areas. I personally wasn't quite satisfied by the "3" message which Data ultimately sends himself. Couldn't he come up with a slightly less ambiguous message? ("Riker," perhaps? Though admittedly, that might have been harder to depict in subconscious ways like the 3s shown in the final act.) You also have to question how utterly clueless Captain Bozeman and his crew must be to get stuck in a loop for 90 years that only took our heroes 17.4 days (so, maybe 10 iterations or so?) to get out of. Still, these are rather minor quibbles.

Other observations:
  • In the first full loop, I got a kick out of the way Crusher bluffs Riker in explaining how she can tell he's bluffing.
  • In a way, I think it's this episode that finally makes Ensign Ro feel like a real main character. That's because this is the first time she appears without actually having a substantial role in the episode. She just shows up at the helm for a few lines that could have been given just as easily to a no-name character.
  • Nurse Ogawa picks up her last name for the first time in this episode.
  • The starship Bozeman was named for Brannon Braga's hometown in Montana. Its otherwise random use here would receive later justification in the movie First Contact, when it was established as the place Zefram Cochrane launched his first warp flight.
  • Rick Berman's sensible request for variety in camera work was counterbalanced by a rather bizarre demand of the writers. Originally, Brannon Braga wrote the first "3" reveal at the poker game by having Data deal Riker three Aces to win the hand. (Not only a instance of 3, but an additional hint that Riker's later suggestion should be followed.) For inexplicable reasons, Berman felt that while Data could stack the deck of cards, he could not give Riker three Aces.
  • The Blu-ray collection of season five includes a commentary track on this episode by Brannon Braga and a rather strange partner: Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. MacFarlane is a longtime Star Trek superfan who did actually appear in two episodes of the series Enterprise, but otherwise has no real reason to be here. Still, the commentary is both fun and informative. Between Stewie voices and impressions of Patrick Stewart, the two talk about the virtues of a live orchestra in soundtrack music, praise The Next Generation's "fearless sentimentality," and reveal a little trivia. (For example: the book in Picard's ready room is "The Globe Illustrated Shakespeare: The Complete Works" -- and was apparently open to a different page in each episode.)
Ultimately, the fact that this episode doesn't have any strong character drama keeps it out of grade A territory in my book. Still, this is about as good as a pure adventure episode of the show can get. I'd rank it high among the B+ installments.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Things We Bury

I never got around to writing about last week's episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. But since there is no new episode this week, that gives me a chance to catch up.

The episode left me a little unsure what to think about Kyle McLachlan's character. When he was introduced to the show, the seemed to be setting him up as a fairly dark character, a serious threat to be dealt with. But this week seemed to take him in a more humorous direction. I understand the need for a contrast with the season's other recurring villain, Whitehall, but I'm not sure this shade of humor is working on him. It's as though he's being asked to play his character "The Captain" from How I Met Your Mother -- but a version that's self-aware and in on his own joke.

But while I remain unsure of his behavior, the unfolding story surrounding him is quite compelling. It was a wonderful revelation at the end of the episode that he's actually out for revenge against Whitehall for the murder of his wife. (Presumably, Skye's mother?) Tying the two plot threads together seems like it can only be a good thing for coming episodes.

Actually, all the Whitehall material in this episode I found interesting in general. Part of me knows that it was sort of an extended preview telling me to "watch Agent Carter this January!" -- except that I totally want to now. The retro vibe of the first Captain America movie was very entertaining, and if they can serve up a mini-series with that flavor (and a female protagonist), I don't see how it could go wrong.

There was, as always, great material for our heroes. Hunter and Morse's antagonism ended up where we all knew it would, but that didn't make it less fun. Seeing Fitz reclaim a place in the field -- and his sense of humor -- was wonderful. And "plotting Coulson" is always entertaining.

What flopped for me was the storyline involving Ward. Don't get me wrong, I still love wild card Ward, out in the world causing trouble. What I didn't like was how quickly his brother Christian was dispatched. In season one, we learned that Christian was the only person who could rattle Grant Ward. Then, in season two, this "evil brother" appeared on the scene as an oily politician that seemed poised to be a great foe, a more conniving and intelligent villain that the rather boring Colonel Talbot. Except in this episode, we saw Grant totally manhandle and defeat Christian, reducing him to a blubbering mess before apparently killing him.... off-camera.

Now, I suppose you could leave room for the possibility that Christian Ward isn't actually dead. But it's hard to see why Grant would risk blowing his new cover with Whitehall should Christian turn up alive -- and it's absolutely impossible to see why Christian would agree to go into hiding voluntarily. So dead brother is really the only thing that seems reasonable here... in which case, it was just all too easy. Too anti-climactic.

So, a mix of good and bad for me. But still, more good than bad. I think I'd call it a B+ overall.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Crossed

Following a series of episodes that each followed just one small subset of the characters, The Walking Dead changed it up this week with an episode that pushed along four separate story lines simultaneously. Unfortunately, there was a bit of marking time, prepping for next week's mid-season finale. That sort of put a cap on how good things could get. Still, some of the stories managed to be effective.

But let's start with the ones that weren't. Watching Abraham kneel on the road for an entire hour just made my knees hurt. It was nice to see the longer-running characters in this group step up and have interesting scenes, at least. Maggie definitely took charge, while Glenn demonstrated that the group can still use their survival skills for something good even with the dream of DC gone. But really, this group of characters pretty much went nowhere and did nothing all episode. Whether you can get on board with giving Abraham time and space for his breakdown or not, it just didn't make for very compelling television when intercut with all the other stories.

Beth running around the hospital trying to save Carol's life was an interesting plot thread, but really, really tough to swallow. It was hard to believe how much freedom of movement Beth had after her escape attempt -- even if the writers tried to hang a lantern on it by having Beth ask Dawn why she was helping her. (Dawn's explanation was a non-explanation.) It was hard to believe that Beth would trust the doctor for any medical advice after she knows he deliberately had her kill a patient. (And if you think, "well, he was only killing another potential doctor," then I'd respond: it was hard to believe the doctor wasn't more curious about this woman Beth wanted to save so badly.) I do like the defiance in Beth, I just found it hard to accept any of the other characters' behavior in this story.

Back at the church, I'm interested at just how reprehensible the writers are willing to make the character of Gabriel. He's a person incapable of defending himself and possessing no survival skills -- which right there is enough to set the show's audience against you. (Just ask Eugene.) We learned that Gabriel holds himself accountable for the deaths of several people (and not undeservedly so). And now he's running away and leaving a vulnerability in the defenses that could get the rest of the gang killed. I'm curious now just what the writers are trying to accomplish with this character. They've taken him so far down the road that I'm not sure he can be redeemed. But we never actually liked the guy, so it's not like we're going to care if he becomes zombie chow. Perhaps there's nothing more to it than the desire to show that yes, stupid people are in the apocalypse too. And, I suppose, the need to manufacture some jeopardy for Michonne, Carl, and Judith?

The most effective story surrounded the assault on Atlanta. A few specific moments really carried a lot of drama. One was when Daryl stopped Rick from killing their cop hostage. It was definitely a sign of the new "there are no limits" Rick that Daryl -- hardly the most level-headed of the group -- had to be the voice of reason/humanity here. And speaking of humanity, Tyreese spent all episode trying to reach Sasha and get her to let go of her anger. She finally did, and let down her guard in the process too. I suspect when Tyreese returns to find her bleeding on the ground, all the calm he's carefully cultivated this season is going to fly out the (cracked) window in a HULK SMASH of white-hot rage.

I didn't really expect this episode to be more than a set-up for the coming cliffhanger. Still, it's hard to really love it. I'd give it a B.

Friday, November 21, 2014

A Raging Storm

My second quest (request?) through George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire continues -- I have finished the third book, A Storm of Swords. Reading it a second time did nothing to diminish my opinion of it. It truly is (to date) the towering achievement in the series. (Spoilers abound in this review, if you've somehow neither read the books nor seen the show.)

Despite being far longer than the two previous books, nothing about it feels like "filler." A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings, though both excellent, do have a few chapters in their opening thirds that feel a bit slow. They drive the world building a little more than the plot, and don't necessarily feel like they're propelling the stories of the main characters. But every chapter of Storm feels essential, and the "big events" start coming early. And often.

Martin bites off a number of challenges in the writing of this book, and masterfully achieves them all. He makes Jaime Lannister a perspective character, letting us inside his head. We first met him when he shoved a little boy out a window in book one, so it shouldn't be possible to redeem him. But by the end of book three, he's lost a hand, been forced to redefine his entire sense of self-worth, begun a journey of disillusionment with his sister, and saved his brother's life (at the expense of his father's). And damned if he isn't now sympathetic.

Later comes the plot twist that sets everyone's lips wagging, the Red Wedding. After Ned's memorable and shocking death in the first book, it really shouldn't be possible to surprise the readers again like that. Another challenge met. After first believing the series would embrace the trope of the noble hero, most readers then embrace the trope-adjacent notion that it would be about the hero's children avenging him. Nope, not that either. Not that the Red Wedding is purely about upsetting expectations (and readers) either. It also seems to be (narratively) about cutting the last connection for Arya and Sansa, who are left with nowhere to run to but toward their own independent destinies.

Lest a reader start to despair that only terrible things happen in this series, Joffrey's wedding comes along to give you a reason to stand up and cheer the book you formerly wanted to throw. But this too serves many purposes. It isn't mere wish fulfillment, but drives the story in amazing new directions. A conspiracy begins to reveal itself, and fan favorite Tyrion loses all the rest of the power that had already begun to slip away from him.

The book then ends with a one-two punch that leaves readers breathless and hungry for more: Tywin is murdered, putting Tyrion on the run; and Lysa is revealed as the killer of Jon Arryn, the single pre-series event that really put the entire story inevitably into motion.

A Storm of Swords is tightly wound and masterfully written, with Martin's best prose of the series. Really, the next book couldn't possibly have been anything but a letdown after it, even if readers had not been forced to wait five years only to receive a whole tale cleaved in half. But that will be a matter of discussion when I come to reviewing the next book. For now, I leave on an immensely satisfied note. A Storm of Swords is an A, the absolute cream of the crop.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Last Night Today -- Live

Last night I had a fun evening out. John Oliver was in town, performing at the Buell Theater. Throughout the week, when I told people of these plans, they invariably had the two reactions that I imagine most of you are having now: "I didn't know he was coming to town!" and "I wish I were going." Yes, John Oliver still does stand up, and now that his show Last Week Tonight is on hiatus between seasons, he's out doing more of it.

He's quite funny in person, and did a set of around an hour and 15 minutes. If you've seen his show, then you know his delivery style -- storytelling (often long form) with jokes scattered along the way. But where his show tends to be political and scathing in its criticism, his stand-up has undercurrents of maybe Jerry Seinfeld mixed with Yakov Smirnoff. Most of his material is observational about his being in America as a foreigner -- and loving it here, crazy though we are.

The heart of his set was a series of long riffs on weird things he's seen around America, such as the library in Boise, Idaho with "Library!" (exclamation point) painted in bold letters on the side. (And the story of the local woman who angrily wrote to the newspaper to complain hilariously when he made fun of it.) Or the South Carolina event that involved hitting baseballs off the deck of an aircraft carrier, from an inflatable cage, into a crowd of people on jetskis trying to catch them. Or the zombie crawl in Minneapolis that he did not know anything about until he found himself in the middle of an episode of The Walking Dead.

When this last bit led some in the crowd to mention that Denver has a zombie crawl too, it led to Oliver's most hilarious bit of the night, and revealed where he really thrives: going off-script. He invited the crowd to share the weirdest thing about Denver, and several people quickly chimed in with Frozen Dead Guy Days. He kept cracking off-the-cuff jokes as audience members shared more and more details, until he was finally so disbelieving that he whipped out his phone on stage to Google it: "Frozen... okay, the Disney movie, of course... Dead G-- ho-ly shit!" It probably helped that somehow, despite all my years in Denver, I myself had never heard of this either. In any case, the combination of the preposterous facts mixed with his witty commentary produced 10 minutes of fantastic stand-up.

It seems that John Oliver is going to be hopping around the country a lot over the next few weeks. (Tonight, for example, he'll be in Anaheim, a city he seemed certain would not be able to top Frozen Dead Guy Days.) So if he's coming near you, and you like his HBO show at all, you owe it to yourself to go. His routine maybe had a couple of dry patches, but it always came back around. It was a great night of comedy.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

TNG Flashback: The Outcast

There's no avoiding it -- my review of "The Outcast" is going to be a long one. So buckle up.

The Enterprise is working with an androgynous alien race, the J'naii, trying to help them locate one of their missing shuttlecraft. The search has one J'naii, Soren, working closely with Commander Riker. Soren soon confesses to him: she is one of a small number of J'naii that does identify as gendered. She is female, and attracted to Riker. But the taboo nature of their relationship puts Soren in a precarious situation with her people.

The allegory of this episode isn't subtle; this is a story about gays and lesbians. But before I discuss it, I think it's worth digging into the history of gays and lesbians in Star Trek.

For the original series, it's a non-existent history. Though the show was very progressive in many areas, it never went anywhere near gay issues. Nobody dared to, not even Gene Roddenberry. In one of his final interviews, the series creator admitted that his own attitude on homosexuality had changed over time -- though he'd never been stridently anti-gay, he acknowledged that in the past, "I would, sometimes, say something anti-homosexual off the top of my head because it was thought, in those days, to be funny."

It seemed he wanted to do something about it with The Next Generation. In a Star Trek convention appearance before the series premiere, a fan asked Roddenberry point blank if there would be any gay characters on the new show. His answer did not hedge: it was time to show gay people on the Enterprise. And when Roddenberry subsequently brought the issue up in a staff meeting, one of the writers decided to run with it. David Gerrold was a veteran of the original series who had written a few episodes, including the beloved "The Trouble With Tribbles." He wanted to do something very serious for the new series, an AIDS allegory about blood transfusion which he titled "Blood and Fire." And part of his script, demonstrating Star Trek's future enlightenment, was casual and incidental dialogue identifying two Enterprise crewmembers as a gay couple.

The vultures circled. Even at this early stage in the life of the show, Roddenberry was stepping back from day-to-day involvement, and producer Rick Berman was stepping up. Also filling the power vacuum was Roddenberry's lawyer Leonard Maizlish, who managed to assert himself into the creative process so thoroughly -- and destructively -- that by the end of season one, every original series writer who'd come to work on The Next Generation was driven to leave the show. By all accounts, both Berman and Maizlish were anti-gay, and very much against Gerrold's story. Berman's attitudes in particular are confirmed by a number of sources:
  • Star Trek: Voyager's star Kate Mulgrew said in an interview that she lobbied repeatedly for a gay character to appear on that show. She named Berman specifically as resistant to it, but couched her comments in a way that didn't completely throw him under the bus.
  • Specifically when it comes to this episode, Berman made a number of coded comments that speak for themselves. I'll provide some examples a bit later.
  • Writer Ronald Moore, after a long tenure on The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine (and a sudden falling out with Voyager), noted that Paramount always let all three of those series do whatever they wanted -- there was never a studio mandate on anything, much less gay characters. Commenting on their absence in Star Trek, he said: "There is no answer for it other than people in charge don’t want gay characters in Star Trek, period."
  • David Gerrold was most blunt of all, calling Berman a "raging homophobe."
Gerrold attempted to defend his story, but Berman and Maizlish weren't having it. Another writer tried, with Gerrold's blessing, to save the AIDS allegory by rewriting the script and excising the gay characters. But in short order, Gerrold left the show, and Berman gained more than enough control over the production to scrap the idea outright. (Decades later, a fan series revived it and actually filmed it... but that's another story.)

That closed the book on gays in Star Trek for several years, until along came "The Host." It was a generally average episode of the series, but it briefly flirted with the subject of homosexuality in a final act twist. This actually smacked of a rather expedient and disingenuous way of addressing the "gay issue" in a way that seemed to hope it would now just go away. Instead, it only got some fans asking questions again. And so, in an interview with The Advocate magazine, Roddenberry answered -- he said that the upcoming fifth season of the show would depict gay characters. Then, sadly, he died just a few months later. Rick Berman's hands were rather effectively tied. In practically his dying interview, The Great Bird of the Galaxy had promised gay characters on Star Trek. So Berman allowed the writers to go through with an allegorical take on the subject.

And therein is the biggest problem with "The Outcast." What the handful of insistent fans had been asking for, what Gene Roddenberry had promised, was actual gay characters on the show, not an allegory. The original Star Trek did an allegory about race in one of its last episodes, "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield." It was pretty awful: a preachy, on-the-nose fist fight through time and space between a man with a half-white half-black face and a man with a half-black half-white face. It's probably safe to say that Star Trek didn't open a single pair of eyes with that one.

But meanwhile, for all three years of its run, Star Trek had been showing its fans skilled professionals of all sorts of backgrounds, working together as if those differences didn't matter at all -- because they didn't. We had Nichelle Nichols' Uhura, participating in television's first interracial kiss, which aired at a time when, just a few years earlier, a marriage between her and a white man would have been forbidden in 17 U.S. states. We had George Takei, a Japanese-American who as a child had been unjustly placed in a World War II internment camp, playing helmsman Sulu, an accomplished officer proud of heritage. (Though not nearly so proud as Chekov -- who as a Russian was America's then mortal enemy in general, and in space travel in particular.) A mere analogy for racial integration could have began and ended with the presence of Spock, but the original series walked the walk with a truly diverse cast.

By contrast, The Next Generation (and "The Outcast" in particular) missed the point when it came to gay people. I'll use Rick Berman's own subconsciously bigoted words, from a subsequent interview, to illustrate: "We thought we had made a very positive statement about sexual prejudice in a distinctively Star Trek way, but we still got letters from those who thought it was just our way of 'washing our hands' of the homosexual situation."

To Berman, prejudice was a situation to be dealt with once -- in a Star Trek way -- and then to move on from. But the fans who'd asked to see a gay character on the show wanted to see that there was a place for them too in this wonderful future. They wanted a role model, as Whoopi Goldberg said she found in watching Nichelle Nichols. They wanted a representative, not something merely representational. Sadly and shamefully, even three subsequent Star Trek series, totalling 18 more seasons of television, would not offer it. (Another exhibit in the case for Rick Berman's bigotry.)

But enough of what might have (should have) been. Time to focus on what actually was, the episode itself. Interestingly, although "The Outcast" was intended as a metaphor for gays and lesbians, it's actually a much better metaphor for transgendered people. Indeed, it's not really a metaphor at all -- in a society where most people are comfortable with the gender identity they are born with (one in this case: neutral), a small percentage of people come to identify with a different gender (in Soren's case: female).

Unfortunately, in its depiction of an androgynous race, this episode equates "androgyny" with "boring." The production could have taken some pointers from a few line-blurring musicians like David Bowie or Annie Lennox. Apparently afraid to present any emotion or personality that might be construed as male or female, the episode makes all the J'naii so flat that they seem joyless. This extends even to Soren, whose romance with Riker really never produces any chemistry. It's hard enough when a Star Trek episode asks a main character to have an entire romantic relationship with a stranger in the course of 60 minutes minus commercials. It's harder still when the object of affection is wooden and dull.

The flatness of the J'naii seems like a production or directorial decision to me, but it's also possible it was just bad casting. Jonathan Frakes himself suggested as much, saying in a later interview that they should have cast men rather than women to play the J'naii. He felt that would have driven the message home more effectively. But Rick Berman never would have gone for that. He gave an interview in which he dismissed that notion: "Having Riker engaged in passionate kisses with a male actor might have been a little unpalatable to viewers." (Note that he didn't say "some" viewers, which no doubt would have been true. He assumed all viewers would share his sensibilities in finding such a scenario "unpalatable.")

Even with strong casting, though (male or female), this episode would have been hard-pressed to make the romance convincing, because it actually gives Riker and Soren even less than "60 minutes minus commericials." A lot of time is eaten up resolving the sci-fi plot involving the missing shuttle. Most of what's left is understandably devoted to explaining the gender taboos of J'naii society. That leaves little time for actually falling in love. Riker's most emotionally resonant scene isn't even with Soren, but with Troi, a nice character scene where he realizes his new relationship is serious enough that he wants to secure Troi's "permission." (Though that seems a little strange, since we very recently learned that Troi explicitly closed the book on anything between her and Riker.) Time is so tight that we're even denied a scene that in any meaningful way shows us Riker's heartbreak after the relationship doesn't work out.

But now that I've seemingly torn to shreds everything about this episode, let me walk it back a bit -- because there are some good things about it. Chiefly, for every bit that Rick Berman just didn't get it, it seems to me that the writer of this episode, Jeri Taylor, really did. Perhaps being a woman in the male-dominated world of television writing made her especially sensitive to the plight of a minority. In any case, she wrote a tremendous amount of strong dialogue in this episode.

First, there's an early scene in Ten Forward, where Soren expresses great confusion to Riker over the concept of gender. We'll learn in short order that this is a sham, that in fact she knows quite a lot about one gender at least. But the dialogue is perfectly polished to reflect how skillfully a person learns to hide in the closet, the tactical ways to probe for a sympathetic ear from the people they meet. In particular, Soren's reaction when another J'naii walks in on their discussion, the instantaneous clamming up, is an incredibly authentic depiction of what it is to be closeted.

The episode also nails the "coming out" moment... at least on the page. When Riker and Soren are alone in the shuttle, and she reveals her true nature to him, the language she uses is absolutely perfect. Unfortunately, the scene itself is undermined by those flaws I spoke of earlier -- bad casting, and the decision to mute J'naii emotion. You get a sense of what the scene should be when Soren tells the story of the school boy from her youth, but really, that terror (multiplied many times over) is what even talking to Riker should be.

Best of all is the episode's second "coming out" moment, when Riker tries to lie for Soren, and she instead responds by revealing herself to her people. At least, once again, it's great on the page, a triumphant declaration of what it is to be gendered (gay), and how there's nothing wrong with it. The speech itself is the best writing in the episode, but its delivery doesn't capture the pure euphoria of finally being honest with the world, with everyone. It's too measured, like a debate presentation. But listen to the words themselves, and you'll see: Jeri Taylor does understand this.

Taylor also took the opportunity to inject a little gender commentary into the episode. Beverly Crusher makes a wonderfully funny and insightful observation on how men go about making themselves attractive in comparison to women. But she goes as far in almost-criticism as any of the human characters on the show would be allowed to go.

This is why the more boorish behavior is given to the alien, Worf. His comments on women being weak are belied by basically every Klingon woman we've ever seen on The Next Generation, Worf's own mate K'Ehleyr most of all. It also contradicts Worf's own comment (in a first season gender-themed episode) that "Klingons appreciate strong women." Still, this is commentary on sexism that really needed to get in this episode somehow, and Worf is redeemed in the end when he offers his help in going after Soren. (An offer which makes a lot of sense, after Riker just talked him out of ritual suicide in the previous episode.)

Where I think Jeri Taylor could have done better still, while still working within the limitations she had, would have been to change Soren's past a bit. When Riker asks her if she's had any prior relationships with male-identifying J'naii, she answers yes. This seems to serve no purpose to me other than imply the rather insulting question: "well, are you sure you're female?" She certainly didn't need to be with a man to define herself as a woman, and I think the dramatic stakes would have been higher if contact with another species, and with Riker in particular, had been the thing that compelled Soren to act for the first time on what she'd known for so long -- if this had been her first "coming out."

The other change I would have considered would be the ending. Obviously, the episode can't end with Riker taking a permanent girlfriend with him (J'naii or otherwise). Still, it's quite unfortunate the way this episode resolves that problem: having Soren undergo "psychotectic treatment." So-called reparative therapy (also known as ex-gay or conversion therapy) is a real thing people undergo -- and that some teenaged LGBTs have forced upon them by their parents. But the reality is, those therapies don't actually work. In this episode, however, we're given no reason to question that this technique does work -- and that's a terrible message to be sending. I would have given serious thought to having Soren be killed instead -- possibly during the rescue attempt, or possibly in her own suicide.

Other observations:
  • Wildest pickup line ever: "Commander, tell me about your sexual organs."
  • Geordi LaForge sports a beard in this episode. Reportedly, Levar Burton really liked it. Obviously, given how fast it went away, the producers didn't.
  • A deleted scene on the Blu-ray remaster shows a conversation between Soren and Riker overheard in Engineering, the moment where they essentially get caught
  • I'm not sure there's really a way the episode could have addressed this, but it occurs to me that gender-identifying J'naii could probably closet themselves more easily in their society than gays and lesbians can in real-world society. A same-sex couple can't publicly show any affection toward each other if they want to keep a low profile, but I would think that whatever passes for public affection in J'naii society isn't going to look any different between two gender-neutral J'naii or a male and female J'naii. To some extent, this might be a metaphor for bisexuality; a bisexual person feels added pressure and momentum to remain closeted when he or she happens to be in an opposite-sex relationship, and can generally move through life "unnoticed."
Congratulations! You've made it to the end of what must be my longest TNG Flashback review ever. To sum it all up, I'd give "The Outcast" a C+. Jeri Taylor wrote some lovely dialogue, which lifts the rating much higher than the otherwise drab episode would have landed. She probably accomplished as much as she could with Rick Berman ultimately in charge. But the performances don't sell her words. The episode's heart may have been in the right place, but its execution is flat.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Bird is the Word

This past weekend, I went to see one of the likely Best Picture contenders for the coming Academy Awards, Birdman. It's the story of a fading actor trying to reinvigorate his career by directing and starring in a Broadway play, and of all the chaos behind the scenes and in his life as opening night approaches. But the movie puts two twists on that rather straightforward plot.

The first twist is technical. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu chose to stage the movie with the appearance of a single, unbroken take. He's hardly the first director to do this; Alfred Hitchcock's Rope is arguably the most famous example, but there have been others since. But the choice here is particularly challenging for several reasons:

The movie does not actually unfold in real time. The story takes place over a period of several days, with scenes set both during the day and at night. There are scenes both inside and out, including movement between buildings, and an impressive sequence in Times Square. There are also a number of visual effects throughout the film, meaning that on top of getting a number of actors to deliver good performances during long, single takes, the camera has to be where it must to accommodate the effect.

The second twist is in the casting. It's sort of a secondary plot point, but the washed-up protagonist's career fell into decline when he walked away from starring in a hit superhero movie franchise. And for this role, director Iñárritu sought out Michael Keaton, who did exactly the same thing as the character when he left the Batman films behind. Keaton's performance here is pretty remarkable, a reminder than once upon a time, he was versatile in both comedy and drama. Indeed, he will be a serious contender for the Best Actor Oscar here with his raw and vulnerable performance here.

But the "meta" casting didn't stop with Keaton. The film also stars Edward Norton, another actor who starred as a superhero (The Hulk) only to walk away from subsequent sequels. And in this film, Norton plays an egocentric method actor, talented but difficult to work with -- an exact embodiment of the reputation some people have given him. Emma Stone, yet another actor with a superhero past, plays Keaton's daughter -- a disaffected rebel fresh out of rehab. (There, at least, the "art imitating life" stops. Perhaps Lindsay Lohan wasn't judged to be reliable enough for a single-take movie.) The cast also includes Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, and the equally talented (though rather less well-known) Andrea Riseborough and Merritt Wever. It's a powerful roster, likely to generate at least one more Oscar nomination for acting when all is said and done.

But how is the movie itself? Well... pretty good. Anyone who has ever worked in theater, even at an amateur level, is sure to love it. Though much of the movie is over the top, it still accurately depicts the sort of people you encounter working in theater -- the bizarre "processes" they use, the odd issues they have bubbling near the surface. The movie is a hilarious pulling back of the curtain.

Yet while the story is great and the acting even greater, I'm not entirely convinced that the artifice of it is strictly necessary. When you pull off a nearly two-hour one take movie, it's hard not to get distracted by the technical accomplishment... and inevitably, to be sometimes pulled out of the story. Even more intrusive is the jazz drums soundtrack used to score the movie. It's a cacophony of noise, like Neil Peart and Keith Moon's jazz baby falling down a flight of stairs. And while I get that it's supposed to be representative of the main character's turmoil, it's just damn distracting.

Still, I'd have to give the movie my overall recommendation. At a B+, it won't be my personal pick to win Best Picture. But I won't begrudge it being in the mix. And it most certainly will be.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Consumed

I was unpleasantly surprised and disappointed by last night's new episode of The Walking Dead -- along with everyone else in my regular "viewing party," who displayed increasing boredom in various levels of intensity as the hour crawled along. In a nutshell, nothing really happened. And considering this was finally the episode bringing us the adventures of Daryl and Carol, that's a real missed opportunity.

One way the episode could have gone was to have virtually wall-to-wall action. It might not have been emotionally fulfilling, but it sure would have been great on a visceral level. Put the show's two greatest ass-kickers together (though Michone and Rick would probably debate that), write them in Die Hard in and/or around the hospital or something, and I think everyone would have satisfied.

Alternatively, and more akin to what I think the episode tried to actually do, you could have had a more introspective and soulful hour where these two characters really communicate with other in dramatically meaningful ways. Except that they both largely had their walls up for the entire hour, and the "schedules" were off whenever one of them felt like opening up. Daryl asks at the beginning about whether Carol "worked here or something," but Carol only answered "something" and closed off a potentially interesting scene. Later, Carol wanted to tell Daryl what had really happened with the girls, but Daryl didn't want to hear it. The trains just kept missing each other all hour, meaning we were deprived of a meaningful dramatic meal too. At one point, Carol finally got a nice monologue about different "versions" of herself that have been burned away, but that felt almost more like the writers patting themselves on the back for the the character's transformation than a natural reflection by the character herself.

Perhaps recognizing their episode was fairly inert, the writers borrowed their clumsy device from last week, giving us micro-flashbacks to open up each act of the story. This still feels more like a device from Lost than a device for The Walking Dead; if this was to have been a tool in their kit this year, they should have been using it from the beginning of the season rather than introducing it several episodes in like this. But what was merely awkward last week was actually tedious this week. Nearly all of Carol's flashbacks were moments we could easily have imagined on our own. Weirder still, they almost amounted to "look at all the fires Carol has seen in the last few weeks." (We get it. "Consumed" is the episode title, and fire is a metaphor. This isn't open mic night at the beatnik coffee bar.)

Speaking of recycled plot devices that don't work for me, this episode marked the return of the inelegant scripting of early season four, where writers from one room (working on the character stuff) seemingly mashed up with writers in another (working on some silly zombie gag). The scene of the van teetering off the bridge felt like a wedged-in way to have a bizarre zombie fighting stage, while its actual fall felt like fuel for a future Mythbusters episode to show us "it wouldn't work that way."

So, it was an hour in which ultimately, not much happened. Disappointing filler to slow down the "assault on the hospital" until the mid-season finale. I give it a C-, lifted that high only because Melissa McBride and Norman Reedus gave it their utmost.

Friday, November 14, 2014

TNG Flashback: Ethics

In watching Star Trek: The Next Generation again from the beginning, I have been pleasantly surprised on occasion to find some episodes better than I remembered. One such episode is "Ethics."

When a cargo bay accident leaves Worf paralyzed, he begins to contemplate assisted suicide as a more honorable option. Meanwhile, Dr. Crusher and a neurological specialist named Toby Russell clash over his possible treatment. Russell offers a new genetronic therapy that would grow Worf a new spine and fully restore his mobility. But Dr. Crusher finds Russell's dismissal of the risks involved to be a major ethical violation.

What I remembered of this episode from first seeing it more than 20 years ago were its unfortunately bad trappings. Not for one moment do you believe that Worf will remain paralyzed -- or wind up dead -- by the time the end credits roll. Thus there's no tension in the episode, and the fake at the end (where Worf dies on the operating table only to miraculously recover) feels like a transparent cheat.

Perhaps worst of all is the nature of Worf's injury. Considering how many times we've seen him thrown against the wall by the "tough alien of the week," it's hard to believe that a falling cargo container would do him in. Even the staging of the accident is unfortunately cheesy -- Worf uses the time in which he could have easily jumped out of the way to instead turn around and curl into a ball, putting his back directly in a position to be injured.

That's what I saw the first time around, and what stuck with me. This time around, however, I focused not on the (non-existent) jeopardy, but on the moral dilemmas. This script, written by Ronald Moore, serves up some big ones, and this episode is no simple parable where these futuristic characters use an allegory to show us the "right answer" to some present issue. It presents the actual issues themselves, and presents both sides of them: assisted suicide and medical ethics.

The medical issues are a little bit more abstract, if only because just a small portion of the audience are doctors. While Toby Russell is set up to be a bit of a villain by jumping to her experiments before exhausting conventional treatment options, the fact is there's a legitimate debate to be had between her and Dr. Crusher. Beverly espouses the most literal interpretation of the Hippocratic Oath: she will do no harm. But she's blind to the fact that Worf sees continued existence as a paraplegic as the harm -- Russell's option offers him a chance at the only kind of life he would accept. And yet Crusher's not wrong to accuse Russell of seeing Worf as more of a test case than a patient.

As for the assisted suicide debate, it's presented with honesty to both the characters and the issue itself. In a powerful scene, Worf asks Riker to help end his life. Riker is an obvious choice, as he is one of the few people with experience understanding Klingons. Only Picard has more, and surely the that option is impossible due to the shame Worf would feel in asking that of his captain. But then, if Worf had asked Picard, he likely would have gotten what he wanted -- another strong scene soon follows in which Picard argues convincingly that Riker should grant his friend's request.

Even better scenes follow. Picard helps Crusher see Worf's point of view, making his points effectively without really getting righteous about it. Then Riker returns to argue Worf out of his death wish in a wonderful scene that honors the show's history, including mentions of Marla Aster and Tasha Yar.

This episode also reaps the benefits of recently bringing Worf's son Alexander on as a recurring character. When you think about the boy's history, watching his own mother die in front of him, you feel for him all the more as he faces the possibility of losing his father here. And yet another strong scene comes when Worf asks Troi to take over raising Alexander if he should die.

What I find interesting about this episode is that it puts the audience in a situation where you can't side with all the main characters at once. Do you side with Worf and Picard in believing a person should be able to choose death on their own terms? Or do you side with Riker and Crusher in finding assisted suicide reprehensible? Do you side with Crusher in her condemnation of Dr. Russell's methods, even if Worf would have killed himself or remained disabled if she'd gotten her way?

As provocative as all this is, I wonder if they might have gone a different route had this episode been made today. Star Trek: The Next Generation came just a little before stem cell research and the potential of human cloning became more widely discussed issues. This episode might just as easily have raised ethical questions about Dr. Russell's technique itself, rather than just her methodology.

Other observations:
  • Wherever you land on morality of assisted suicide, I think we can all agree on the morality of Geordi LaForge. He is a cheater. In the teaser for this episode, he confirms what we all might well have expected: he can use his VISOR to read cards at the poker table. He tells Worf that he only peeks after a hand is over, but that still gives him knowledge about whether or not a player was bluffing in a hand. That affects his decision-making for future hands. Cheater.
  • K'Ehleyr is long dead, but she still gets all the best lines. According to Alexander, "My mother always said Klingons had a lot of dumb ideas about honor."
  • It's a nice detail that when Crusher comes with the news that Worf died in surgery, Troi knows immediately, sensing the doctor's emotional state.
  • There's a deleted scene from this episode on the Blu-ray collection, in which Worf rejects another attempt by Dr. Crusher to undergo the implant treatment. It would have come just before the scene in which Picard helps the doctor to understand Worf's perspective. Having just witnessed Worf's stubbornness firsthand, it makes sense that she's finally receptive to Picard's arguments.
The setup for this story is unfortunately weak, but the scenes that follow offer strong moments for many characters and the actors who play them. So overall, I'd deem this episode a B+.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Writing on the Wall

This week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a bit of a mixed bag for me. It basically ran two plots in parallel, and I only felt engaged in one of them.

Sadly, it's the Coulson plot that wasn't really doing it for me. His resurrection storyline has been part of the show from day one, and has generally been interesting whenever the writers have inched it forward. It has always helped (then and now) that Clark Gregg is a very talented actor. This seemed like the hundredth time we've watched him carving on the wall, and it was the second time we've seen him strapped into the memory/torture device, but he gave a compelling enough performance to make the repetition work.

But we have seen all this before. It's hard to top the shocking revelation of Coulson begging for his own death, on a table with a robot picking at his exposed brain. Having him watch others go through that just didn't pack the same punch. It did lead to some "badass Coulson in the field," which is always fun, but I guess my doubts are with where it all ended up.

I feel like I should be happy that we got probably our biggest plot movement in a while (maybe ever) in the revelation that Coulson has been carving a blueprint to some kind of alien city. But instead, I'm skeptical that this is really in service to a future plot line for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Somehow, this instead feels like something setting the table for a future Thor or Guardians of the Galaxy movie or something, like it's beyond the scope of the TV show. And as it good as it was when events from the Marvel movies finally pushed things forward on the show, the knowledge that there are no Marvel movies coming for the rest of this season makes me feel like things can't really flow in the other direction any time soon. In other words, I worry this all isn't going to go anywhere.

That would be fine if they could somehow just bench this hole plot thread and focus on other things. They can't completely of course, but I mean that the Ward part of the episode I found quite compelling. Evil Ward (or "maybe double agent Ward," whatever he is now) is far more intriguing than pre-HYDRA Ward. And the cat and mouse games between him and the pursuing S.H.I.E.L.D. agents was just great. I love that both Ward and Our Heroes were allowed their moments to be clever. And at the moment, I'm far more interested in seeing Ward go after his brother than I am in the alien city story.

I suspect many fans will take exactly the opposite view of this episode -- they'll be excited about the aliens and lukewarm about Ward the sociopath. But perhaps we'll agree on the mixed bag resulting in a good-but-not-great episode. I give it a B.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Getting Kinky

Kinky Boots, last year's Tony Award winner for Best Musical, just rolled through Denver. But just before it left on Sunday, I got to see it Saturday night and find out how it compared to the hype.

Based on a (non-musical) film -- which in turn was based on a real-life story -- Kinky Boots tells the tale of Charlie, a young man struggling to keep his father's struggling shoe factory afloat. To drum up new business, Charlie takes ideas from Lola, a drag performer he meets by chance -- and his factory begins manufacturing womens' stilettos in mens' sizes. But no matter how dire things are for the business, some of Charlie's employees have trouble with this new direction, and more specifically with the person who inspired it.

The script for this adaptation was written by Broadway veteran Harvey Fierstein. The music and lyrics, however, came from a newcomer -- 80s pop icon Cyndi Lauper. For her efforts, she became the first woman working solo to win the Tony for Best Original Score. She has created a versatile collection of music with different styles for each character. Drag queen Lola riffs on 70s disco, protagonist Charlie adheres to the classic Broadway style, and adorkable love interest Lauren (who frankly steals the show from the two male leads) gets music that Lauper herself might have sung on her breakout 80s album. There's clever wordplay, catchy melodies, and a clear effort through it all to weave in elements that could exist on the radio and not just in the theater.

However, it is a bit of an uneven road through two acts for Lauper, and definitely for Fierstein. At the top of the show, and somewhat again at the top of Act II, things are a bit slow to get going. For all the show's unusual trappings, the story is quite conventional, with the plot bricks laid too conspicuously and slowly in place. Things do get there, to be sure. By the time Lola is explaining to the factory workers that "Sex Is in the Heel," you're hooked -- with Act I's two best numbers yet to come ("The History of Wrong Guys" and "Not My Father's Son"). And the Act II finale, "Raise You Up/Just Be" is a crowd-pleasing, get up on your feet finale to a solid show.

But I suppose knowing this won the Tony automatically puts expectations on it that it can't quite fulfill. It's a great deal of fun, but it doesn't have the laugh-until-you-can't-breathe wit of The Book of Mormon, nor is it as uplifting and invigorating as the musical that should have beaten it at last year's awards: Matilda. If Kinky Boots comes to your town, then it's absolutely worth going. But I wouldn't quite lift it into the category of "can't miss." I'd give it a B+.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Good, But Not Stellar

Director Christopher Nolan has made several movies throughout his career, and has yet to make a bomb. Even his worst (Insomnia, in my book) still has impeccable style, and enough good elements to be worth watching. So whenever a new Nolan movie comes around, I don't need to be convinced. I'm fine with the vague teaser trailers that reveal nothing of the film within, because his name above the title is all I need to know.

Nolan's latest is Interstellar, a science fiction tale set in an apocalyptic future. For those who perhaps do need a little more to whet their interest than I did, the premise is quite simple: with the planet Earth losing the ability to sustain life, a pilot must leave his children behind and set out on an uncertain journey into space to find a new home for humanity.

Interstellar is epic in every sense of the world. It boasts a run time of nearly three hours. It features more scenes shot in the IMAX 70mm format than any of Nolan's previous film. And it wears proudly on its sleeve the influences of classic films -- most noticeably 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Though I definitely think Contact is another touchstone that I haven't heard Nolan specifically cite.) Certainly, the visuals are created with the 2001 sense of scale in mind (and many were made before filming began, so the actors could react to actual projections on set rather than imagine what would later replace a green screen).

The cast is extensive and talented. Matthew McConaughey plays the hero, Cooper, and while his trademark swagger and accent almost border self-parody at times, the emotional heft he brings (the same heft that won him an Oscar) is enough to overpower that. Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Wes Bentley, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, Topher Grace, John Lithgow, and Nolan film veteran Michael Caine all help in grounding this galactic epic in personal terms.

Perhaps that's why, in my opinion, the film is at its best before it actually goes to space. The opening hour or so establishes the Earth of the future and the relationships of the characters, and effectively builds empathy and interest. And early on in the space adventure, the sense of wonder and the weight of the expectations on the characters more than sustains the story. But there comes a point where enough foreshadowing "Chekhov's guns" have been revealed that you know how it's all going to end, and that point unfortunately comes well before the movie is over.

I don't necessarily mean that you know exactly how the climactic scene is going to play. (Certainly, you don't know what it's going to look like.) But the major plot developments are obvious -- particularly if you keep the inspiration of 2001 in mind. And because Interstellar is not fundamentally a suspense movie, "waiting for the other shoe to drop" isn't enough to sustain that three-hour run time.

Mind you, I would still call Interstellar a good movie overall. Perhaps the opening is so strong that even in decline it stays at a high level. Perhaps the visual craftsmanship is enough to compensate for the predictability of the plot (though I'm not the sort of person who usually goes for that). Whatever it is, I would say Interstellar is worth seeing -- and certainly worth seeing in a theater if you do. But I think it resides closer in Nolan's resume to Insomnia that his other film triumphs. I give it a B+.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Self Help

Honestly, I wasn't really feeling this week's episode of The Walking Dead that much. It was decent enough, I suppose, and (though you'll probably get tired of me saying this) better than the Governor stretch. But it had a number of strikes going against it.

First, the timing of it seemed bad to me. Two weeks ago, we were left with a cliffhanger about Daryl returning to the group at the church. Last week, were left with a cliffhanger about Beth at the hospital, and Carol's arrival there. And while I do of course understand that the writers want to milk the suspense of those moments by making us wait for the resolution, the fact is that I really don't care much about Abraham, Eugene, and the "journey to DC" storyline.

True, this installment was trying to make us care about those characters by building the episode around them. But it misfired for me in a few ways. First, Glenn and Maggie are long established characters, and were right there, so I think they could have been more effective tools in making us care about the "new guys." Instead, they were just along for the ride. I feel like the writers could have at least given us a moment at the end where Maggie is crushed over having abandoned her sister for a pipe dream gone bust, but this episode simply wasn't interested in how the longest running characters were feeling.

Second, I found conspicuous the use of the interwoven past/present flashback structure to let us in on Abraham's past. True, Lost isn't the first place to use flashbacks to reveal character history, but it's a recent enough example to color the perception of any other TV show that tries it. This isn't The Walking Dead's normal approach, and it felt to me like too jarring a break from format.

Third, Eugene's revelation hardly seemed like a revelation. That guy was sketchy from the moment he showed up, and was extra sketchy throughout this episode, as though challenging the audience not to guess he was full of crap. Even the people not thinking ahead that much would have to know, I think, that they're not just going to get to DC and cure the zombie disease.

But I suppose while they didn't exactly get me loving the newer characters, they did at least make me appreciate what a demoralizing turn of events this was for Abraham. Actor Michael Cudlitz played his final scenes so well that you almost didn't need any of the flashbacks; you could see how Eugene's lie had completely destroyed all Abraham had left to keep him going.

I also have to admit, much as I normally dislike an awkwardly inserted zombie kill scenario, watching that fire engine hose destroy the already decaying walkers was a moment of disgusting genius.

I think I'd call this episode a B. Perhaps if Abraham and Eugene (and Rosita) live long enough for us to develop more of an attachment to them later, we might look back on this episode as a pivotal and memorable one for them. But for now, I see it more as a distraction keeping us from other characters we're more invested in.

Friday, November 07, 2014

TNG Flashback: Power Play

When a television series overextends its budget, the writers will often produce a "bottle show" to balance the books -- an episode with minimal visual effects, taking place as much as possible on existing sets. By the middle of the fifth season, Star Trek: The Next Generation was needing a bottle show. But their efforts to create one backfired in "Power Play."

During an Away Team mission, Counselor Troi, Data, and Chief O'Brien all become possessed by alien consciousnesses. After they try and fail to take over the Enterprise, they barricade themselves inside Ten Forward. As Captain Picard tries to negotiate the hostage situation, the rest of the crew searches for a way to force the aliens from their friends' bodies.

"Power Play" began as a pitch from two writers -- one an outsider, the other Maurice Hurley, who ran the series before Michael Piller arrived at the start of season three. Though I tried to research the answer, I don't know if this idea was a leftover from all the way back in those season two days, or if Hurley came back to pitch this episode later. I do know that the actual script did not come easily. Piller envisioned it as an easy bottle show, a tense hostage situation that would feature pages and pages of dialogue between Picard and the possessed crewmembers. But many freelancers were given a crack at that story, and all came up blank.

Staff writer Brannon Braga finally took his stab at a script, and he too fell short. He delivered just what Piller had asked for, a dialogue heavy hostage story, and both men agreed the script wasn't good enough to produce. Piller decided to give the idea one last chance before throwing it out for good, assigning staffer Herbert J. Wright to work with Braga on a new draft.

Together, Wright and Braga really changed the direction of the script. First, they added a mystery element by having the aliens claim to be the ghosts of a long-dead starship crew. More importantly, they turned the episode into an all-out action piece. Adding in a shuttle crash, an elaborate and inhospitable planet surface, and dozens and dozens of phaser blasts turned what was meant to be a budget-saver into a budget-buster. But the result also injected life into the story, making it worthy of the cameras. Braga loved their changes, crowing: "It has no socially redeeming value, but it sure is action-packed."

That's exactly why Piller was never really happy with it. He lamented that they had somehow failed to keep a hostage situation tense enough to sustain 42 minutes of television, and felt that the action they used to fill it was "empty." Still, Piller did exactly hate the finished product either. He praised David Livingston for one of the best directed episodes of the season. Livingston not only delivered exciting action, he tried out some unusual camera tricks -- including a full 360-degree rotation during the shuttle crash, reportedly inspired by the movie Cape Fear.

Piller also praised actors Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner, and Colm Meaney for their performances as the aliens possessing Troi, Data, and O'Brien. ("Slash," "Buzz," and "Slugger," as everyone on the set apparently called them.) For his part, Brent Spiner was concerned about finding a brand of villainy distinct from his previous portrayals of Lore. (I believe he was successful, as "Buzz" takes none of the glee in his misdeeds that Lore clearly did.) Meanwhile, Marina Sirtis was so enthusiastic about getting this action-packed material that she asked to do her own stunts. When the energy attacks the characters on the planet surface early in the episode, Sirtis was the only one of the four actors who did her own fall... and reportedly broke her coccyx doing it. Of course, with the other three characters played by stuntmen, the camera was positioned such that you couldn't really see their faces. Sirtis was later disappointed, claiming "It could have been Worf in Troi's costume and we wouldn't have known the difference."

But it's not just that Sirtis, Spiner, and Meaney really nail their roles in this episode, it's that their characters really are the perfect choices to put into this story. Making Troi the leader is a wonderful choice. These hard edges coming from a character who is usually nothing but smooth softness makes a real shock for the audience. Having Data be the most overtly psychotic of the three, when he is usually the emotionless character, is another strong contrast. And as the only married character among the main and recurring ones on the show, putting Miles O'Brien into this situation allows for wonderful tension with his wife Keiko.

Other observations:
  • Watch for a true Star Trek rarity early in this episode: the shuttlecraft has seat belts!
  • Babylon 5 fans should pay attention in the moment when Worf and two of his security officers find the abandoned communicators in the turbolift. The female officer is actress Patricia Tallman, who played telepath Lyta Alexander on Babylon 5.
  • When the Ten Forward standoff is about to begin, the scene starts with Keiko trying to calm an already fussy Molly. Another parent who won't take their fussy baby out of a crowded restaurant.
  • The remastered Blu-ray version of this episode contains the largest amount of missing footage in the entire series remastering effort. Nearly two minutes of the Ten Forward scenes could not be located and had to be upconverted from standard definition sources. Fortunately, they put a lot of effort into matching this footage to the true HD material; this material is not nearly as noticeable as the few seconds here and there that have been occasionally absent in past episodes.
  • A role reversal of this episode would happen years later on Deep Space Nine; Keiko would be taken over by an alien entity, while Miles would be forced to deal with the possessed spouse.
  • At the end of the episode, there's a humorous little "womp womp" moment where Data apologizes for manhandling Worf. But this week's real "Worf gets beat up again" moment comes early on, when Slugger/O'Brien knocks him over the bridge railing.
Star Trek: The Next Generation rarely did pure action, and even more rarely did it better than this. Pitting the main characters against one another (after a fashion) makes for nice tension in this fun episode. I give it an A-.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

All Together Now

I was not a fan of Wet Hot American Summer, to put it mildly. Yet I am a fan of just about everyone who was involved with it, and so I was willing to give the gang another chance with their latest film, They Came Together. Written by David Wain and Michael Showalter, the movie is both a romantic comedy and a sarcastic parody.

Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd star as a couple who tell their friends the story of how they met and fell in love. The setup allows for "How I Met Your Mother" style narrative commentary, meta humor, groaners, and thinkers, but most of the comedy comes from an almost Zucker brothers type of tongue-in-cheek ridiculousness. The movie doesn't have the "joke every 5 seconds" structure of say, Airplane!, but like that great comedy of the past, it never uses a cliche without commenting on it. And it uses all the cliches.

In just 90 minutes, the movie packs in an epic (and epicly talented) supporting cast: Cobie Smulders, Christopher Meloni, Max Greenfield, Bill Hader, Ellie Kemper, Ed Helms, Michael Ian Black, Jack McBrayer, Kenan Thompson, and Ken Marino all appear, as do Adam Scott and John Stamos in a bizarre but hilarious cameo. But it's really anchored by Poehler and Rudd, who do manage a credible romance even as they're mocking the formula every step of the way.

Ultimately, I was very entertained, and I'd recommend the movie to pretty much anybody... save perhaps fans of rom-coms who might not enjoy seeing a beloved genre distilled to its repetitive tropes. Then again, Galaxy Quest didn't make me like Star Trek any less. (Though to be clear, good as this movie might be, Galaxy Quest is in another league.) I give They Came Together an A-.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

TNG Flashback: Conundrum

After a number of disappointing episodes, Star Trek: The Next Generation started to get back on track with "Conundrum."

An alien energy beam strikes the Enterprise, causing the entire crew to lose their memories. They soon discover they're on a mission to destroy the central command station of the Lysians, with whom the Federation has been embroiled in a long war (according to the ship's records). As the crew struggles with their lost identities and their misgivings about this assignment, an undercover agent in their midst tries to keep them in the dark.

It's getting repetitive to say this, but this episode came from a pitch made in the previous season. In fact, several "amnesia" episodes had been suggested during season four, but the idea that got traction was a story of soldiers conscripted to fight a war by having their memories erased. While show runner Michael Piller didn't think the finished episode quite delivered on the moral implications of that premise, the entire writing staff was still pleased with the result.

Joe Menosky, the writer who finally cracked the story behind "Darmok," was behind the final draft here -- though his efforts on this occasion went uncredited on screen. But he deserves recognition for avoiding a big landmine in this story. This could have been like "Violations" a few episodes before, in that the audience grows impatient waiting for the characters to catch up -- in this case, to recover their memories and expose the treacherous alien MacDuff. But the emphasis here is less on how this happened to the characters than on their new interactions.

Robbed of their memories, each character reverts to the core of who he or she is. Worf is militant and takes command, and he stands as always opposite from Picard's instinct for diplomacy. Data still wants to find a way to "belong," though rather than imagining himself with human emotions, he speculates about being part of an entire society of artificial life forms. Geordi is still a problem solver. Troi is still a calming influence on those around her.

And Riker is still a horndog. The Ro-Riker-Troi love triangle presented here is unquestionably the highlight of the episode. It's set up with an early conflict between Riker and Ro to remind us where they normally stand in each other's eyes. But then, with their memories erased, Ro immediately pursues a physical relationship with him. And Riker's not the sort of man to resist. Somewhat hilariously, even when confronted with actual written proof that he and Troi have been close (and, for all he knows, that they might still be), he practically shoves the counselor out to the door to hook up with Ro. Of course, it all pays off wonderfully in the final scene of the episode, where neither Ro nor Troi seems to have an ounce of jealousy or bitterness over what has happened; they're united in the goal of making Riker profoundly uncomfortable.

One flaw that Menosky can't quite shore up here is the remarkably powerful, implausibly specific nature of the alien amnesia technology. He tries to hang a bell on it by having Riker mention it to Picard after their memories have been recovered. But the question of how a race with limited weapons capabilities could master this other kind of technology is only part of the issue. Like the mind-altering device featured in "The Game," you have to wonder how these aliens can erase the memories of multiple alien races (and Data!), perfectly removing all personal memories while leaving their skills intact. But hey... you just have to go with it, and fortunately the episode delivers enough to satisfy if you do.

Other observations:
  • Actually, the most implausible thing in the episode is right at the beginning, when Troi beats Data at a game of chess. Mind you, I'm not mocking Troi here. Rather, I'm noting that there are computer programs in existence today that actual grandmasters of chess can rarely defeat.
  • The "Samarian sunset" drink that Data prepares is just a fun little idea -- a drink that changes colors when you tap the glass.
  • Trekkers with a mind for trivial details get a veritable feast in the scene where the crew finally gets a look at their personnel files. We see birth dates, cities of origin, middle initials, parents' names, and more -- and all of it crystal clear in the Blu-ray remastering of the episode. There are even nods to continuity, with notices in the files of both Data's daughter and Troi's son.
  • In another callback to a previous episode, the short phrase Riker plays on his trombone comes from the song he played in "11001001."
  • After making a good showing for himself in "Violations," Worf is back to getting beaten up by stronger aliens. MacDuff knocks him halfway across the bridge.
  • Not that there weren't other flaws in MacDuff's plan, but a fairly big one seems to be: why didn't he just position himself as the captain of the Enterprise rather than the first officer? It surely would have given him a greater chance to get the crew to do as he wanted.
This episode's interesting premise really exposes the core nature of many of the characters in fun, entertaining ways. I give it a B+.